Grosse Pointe schools weigh closures amid dropping enrollment

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Kindergartener Johnny Martin, 6, leads his dad John Martin along with his fifth grader sister Elena Martin, 11, and family dog Westley on their walk home from Defer Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Park.

A day of reckoning is coming for the public schools in the Grosse Pointes. 

After 15 years of declining enrollment — and a determination to right-size without opening its doors to Schools of Choice students — the school district will identify on Thursday specific buildings that face potential closure.

Superintendent Gary Niehaus said the district will present at a public meeting different scenarios under which a specific school would close that would include the operational savings, bond savings and projected land value. 

The goal is to have at least $1 million a year in savings and be at least 80 percent capacity at as many schools as possible, Niehaus said. The district will also discuss the creation of an early childhood center at one of the existing schools at Thursday's Blue Ribbon Committee meeting.

"We have declining enrollment, and there is a consensus that we need to reconfigure our district," Niehaus said. "It’s a matter of getting (the information) to town hall meetings. Once we do that, it will be interesting to see if there is anything we can do better."

Declining K-12 enrollment has translated into financial losses every year for the affluent Metro Detroit school district. With each student equal to around $10,000 in school revenue, the district's average 100-student drop per year is $1 million lost. 

Grosse Pointe's schools are not alone in fighting the downward spiral. Statewide K-12 student enrollment has been on the decline for years. Enrollment is forecast to drop another 10% through 2025 in southeast Michigan. 

But after years of watching enrollment decline in their own district, Grosse Pointe parents, taxpayers and school officials are now grappling with how to balance the district and have set a deadline for June 30 so the school system can save between $1 million and $2 million annually.

The idea of closing elementary schools and moving fifth grade students into middle school buildings — two concepts under serious scrutiny by school officials —  has produced an emotional and often caustic debate in the community and across social media.

“Everyone understands something has to close, and they don’t want it to be their building,“ district parent Jen Evans said. "It's not a shock that schools need to close."

Enrollment has been on the decline for the last 17 years in the district. Its peak population in recent years was in the 2004-05 school year when about 8,930 students attended. About 7,600 students are enrolled this school year across 14 school buildings.

"We just have to do this," said Evans, who has two children at Pierce Middle School. "No one is happy. No one is thrilled. I would rather choose how we downsize rather than someone else."

Options under consideration

A Blue Ribbon Committee appointed by the school board is studying multiple options to move students into other buildings to balance the district and shutter buildings no longer needed.

The committee is meeting from 6-9 p.m. on Thursday at Parcells Middle School's auditorium at 20600 Mack in Grosse Pointe Woods to discuss its work. The district will also be hosting more town halls through May to gather community input on the reconfiguration work of the committee.

Options include closing at least two of the district's nine elementary schools and reconfiguring grades across the district, such as moving fifth graders out of elementary school and into the middle schools that currently serve grades 6-8.

Savings would come from closing buildings and needing less staff, school officials said.

The board expects to make a decision by June. Whatever change is approved, building closures or grade reconfigurations will not occur before the 2020-21 school year.

School board president Brian Summerfield said maintaining the current nine elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools and one early childhood center will not be considered.

A K-6 and 7-12 configuration will also not be considered, Summerfield said, and neither high school will be closed and high school boundaries will not be changed.

Summerfield says the district might be the last "mature district" in Metro Detroit to go through the painful process of closing schools due to a declining student population.

"Nobody wants to do it," Summerfield said. "The issue was taken up in 1984, and we wanted to close four schools back then. We closed one. It needs to happen."

The board will consider many factors when deciding whether to close a particular school, Summerfield said, such as location and size.

A building analysis done by the district says capacity ranges from 55% to 85% at the nine elementary schools, from 69% to 86% in the three middle schools and 54% to 73% at the two high schools.

"You want to preserve the nature of that neighborhood-school feeling," Summerfield said. "The facility itself could need more maintenance. What we can do with it (the building) ultimately will be a part of it."

A closed building could be mothballed, repurposed or sold, Summerfield said.

"This really is a work in progress right now," he said.

The board of education also will not consider Schools of Choice, an option to open its doors to neighboring school districts to receive their children and their per-pupil foundation grant from the state, school officials said.

Board treasurer Judy Gafa, who said she was speaking for herself and not the board, said many people in Grosse Pointe "firmly believe they pay their taxes for their schools, and our children should attend those schools."

Choice, Gafa said, creates flight and a pattern of moving. 

"To me, it’s a failure," she said. "I don’t want to decimate other districts. Detroit is making strides to come back."

The district, which has its own enrollment eligibility investigation office and tip line for suspected student scofflaws coming from other districts, is 74% white and 16.5% African American. One of its high schools is 28.3% black.

The district boundary lines include all five Grosse Pointe communities and a portion of Harper Woods, a community that is 59% black.

School closures will provide the district savings in the number of jobs eliminated, Gafa said, from custodians to teachers to principals. The goal will be to allow teachers to retire and the district will not replace them over time, she said.

"People love their schools," Gafa said. "This is a community and a lot of relationships are developed once children start attending schools...We are nervous. We aren't sure what the plan is until the Blue Ribbon Committee finishes their work."

Concerned parents

Jennifer Schaupeter, a middle school math teacher and a parent in the district, said she is concerned about the idea of moving fifth graders into the middle schools.

Schaupeter is concerned about fifth graders losing their regular rotation of "specials," including art, music, library and gym. Her son is in third grade this year and could be impacted as a future fifth grader.

"How can we say these classes are no longer important at such a pivotal age?" Schaupeter said. "Preteens are trying to figure out where their interests lie and taking away these learning opportunities at this time is not in the best interest of the children."

Schaupeter said changing the age grouping of the schools is a developmental shift that is not in the best interest of elementary or middle school students.

"I hope that the school board will consider and research the important issues and questions before supporting a plan that involves such a big change in our current grouping," she said.

Addressing changes

David B. Chapin, an assistant professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University, said school leadership must consider multiple factors when deciding whether to reconfigure grades.

"Does change create an improved student-teacher centered budget? Does it improve the distribution of resources to students?" Chapin said.

A former school superintendent in Michigan for 12 years, Chapin said there is no definitive research that grade reconfigurations negatively impact student learning.

"There is nothing that supersedes — in terms of student achievement — the significance and the impact a good teacher has on student learning, no matter the setting," Chapin said. "That in and of itself still stands the test of time in our research."

If moving a grade into another building allows the district to pool human resources to more effectively support students, that is positive, Chapin said.

"If there is bond money in play, a separate wing for young students can make all of us feel a little better, or separate lunch periods or separate entrances," Chapin said. "This will also allow pooling human resource in a way for social-emotional supports, such as an added counselor and social worker to work with fifth graders."

The district will need to review primary and secondary teacher certifications to determine whether buildings have the staff they need to teach younger children, Chapin said.

Two full school years is enough time to make the transition, Chapin said, as long as there is funding to provide the additional supports.

Brian Jacob, a professor of public policy, economics and education at the University of Michigan, said transitions from elementary to middle school are difficult regardless of the grade at which they occur.

Configurations in middle schools run from grades 6-8 to 7-9 or 7-8, Jacob said, and some districts already operate 5-8 buildings.

"People talk about various configurations and what is best for one reason or another," Jacob said. "Wherever you look, if you track students over time, whatever grade they make a transition, you see a decline in their performance and that rebounds when they are in the new space."

In middle school, students move around in a larger facility, see a larger number of teachers during the day and experience changes in peer relationships. There is more regular homework and less monitoring and supervision, he said.

But if structures are put into place to support students, Jacob said, there is no reason a 5-8 middle school will be problematic.

"Some schools have done advisory periods for fifth graders," Jacob said. "Those are in middle school already with a short half-period with a smaller set of students."

Lessons learned by other districts

Rob Glass, superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools, which has 5,400 students, said his district has spent the last decade trying to right-size itself as its enrollment declined.

Before Glass arrived in 2010, the Oakland County district closed two elementary schools in 2008, and those students were redistributed to other elementary schools. The district also moved its fifth-graders into middle schools that were serving grades 6-8.

In 2012, the district combined its two high schools, closing one building and renovating and adding on to the other. The school got a new name and mascot. In 2016, the district found itself with too many elementary classes and need to move some fourth-graders into some of its middle schools as well.

The decisions were hard and emotional for parents, Glass said, but necessary.

"The sooner you do these things, the better," he said. "It saves a lot of money, and it means you don’t have to increase class sizes or cut programs."

Parents were concerned about moving fourth and fifth graders to middle school environments, Glass said, but additional doorways to segregate younger students in middle school from older ones were added and remodeling fifth grade rooms to reflect more colorful elementary environments was done.

"It all depends on your mindset and willingness to create your future," Glass said. "And there can be some pluses to the changes, such as access to larger gym spaces and some science labs that aren't in an elementary school."

Glass said empty school buildings can be sold to make way for new housing that could result in more children enrolling in the district.

"If you sell some properties and build homes on them, you are increasing enrollment for the future," he said. "That’s the gift that keeps on giving."

Taking the long view

Parent John F. Martin has two children at Defer Elementary School. Nearly every day Martin or his wife walk about one block up to their children's school to drop them off and pick them up.

It's a ritual they love and don't want to give up. But Martin says he and his wife are being patient while information and misinformation are spread across the community.

Martin, a professional photographer, said he believes the school board and superintendent are doing their due diligence.

"I trust they will come up with a decision to right-size the district and continue to provide the best education in Michigan," Martin said. "I believe buildings are going to have to close. It does not make sense to have so many buildings so partially filled."

The district considers itself a walkable district but will not provide transportation when schools close for general education students, another issue that raises concerns for some parents.

If Defer is closed, Martin said he and his family will deal with that. 

"We can walk to our school," Martin said. "If we have to drive, it's not the end of the world. We are fortunate to live in a community that values education so highly."

Town hall conversations

The Grosse Pointe Public School System is holding Town Halls in April and May to discuss its reconfiguration proposals. All begin at 6:30 p.m.

Wednesday: North High

Thursday: Kerby

Monday: Mason

Tuesday: South High

May 1: Richard

May 2: Ferry

May 6: Parcells 

May 7: Brownell

May 8: Monteith

May 9: Maire

May 14: Trombly

May 15: Poupard

May 16: Defer

May 21: Pierce

May 22: Barnes